Is Dilma heading downhill?

By Christopher Garman and Jefferson Finch

At first glance it would appear that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has successfully weathered her administration's first political crisis: a scandal that led to the resignation of her chief of staff, Antonio Palocci (his second departure from a Workers' Party government due to accusations of shady dealings). Indeed, it'd be easy to think that it might be smooth sailing for the rest of the year. The president substituted Palocci with Gleisi Hoffman, a senator whom she knows well and who is loyal to her; the market's trepidation about inflation appears to be receding for the moment; and the latest unemployment data, released yesterday, reveal that seasonally adjusted unemployment has reached an all-time low of 5.9 percent. What's more, a public opinion survey conducted by Datafolha in June found that Brazilians' impression of the Rousseff administration had improved a little since March, with 49 percent of respondents saying her government was "good" or "great," compared with 47 percent before.

But Rousseff's political future might not be as rosy. If you dig a little deeper, a different, more challenging picture emerges. The same Datafolha poll found that the share of respondents who think inflation will stay high jumped from 41 percent in March to 51 percent in June. Likewise, the portion of respondents who think their purchasing power will increase dropped from 43 to 33 percent. Meanwhile, the National Confederation of Industry found that 71 percent of the people they spoke to expect inflation to increase over the next year, the highest percent in roughly a decade.

To make matters worse, consumer confidence is starting to drop. Datafolha discovered that 17 percent of respondents think the economy will worsen, almost double the number (9 percent) who felt that way in March. These shifts in popular sentiment may not be dramatic enough to change the political calculus of Rousseff's advisors, some who think her popularity might even rise later this year. But they do hint that the economic foundation of Rousseff's popularity is splintering. As Brazilians feel their purchasing power sapped, the rosy halo around Rousseff will likely start to fade. That said, the president's downhill slide will probably be gradual. After all, we're talking about higher inflation, not runaway inflation, and slower growth (just under 4 percent for 2011), not recession.

Christopher Garman is head of Eurasia Group's Latin America practice. Jefferson Finch is an associate in the practice.